Magic and Religion in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt is well known for its magic and religion. This is a custom man have failed to understand why it was so deep-rooted in this antique life. Magic and religion were so intertwined in the Egyptian way of life that there was hardly a distinction between the two. This is because the two had their roots in the same mental ground hence their difference was meaningless. To understand this particular view, one needs to view the ancient Egyptians in their perspective and reconstruct their world. This paper samples some of the early Egyptian practices that were termed more magic than religious and their characteristics. The place of magic in ancient Egypt is thus of paramount here as well as the religious practices of the day.

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History and Evidence

The evidence for ancient Egypt magic dates back about four and half thousand years back. Written spells serve as the main source material. However, objects also provide evidence for types of magic that are scarcely recorded in texts.  According to all these records, there existed three types of magic in ancient Egypt. These were the funerary magic exhibited in the large number of well-preserved tombs, ritual magic performed in the temples and everyday magic, which consisted of spells and rites enacted for individuals in their every day life. All the three were closely linked to one another and their impact was interrelated.

As seen from the above examples, magic occupied a great deal of the lives of ancient Egyptians. What then did they term as magic? The Egyptian word that was usually translated to mean magic is ‘heka’. This was one among the forces that were used by the creator god to create the world. Before creation took place, Egyptian myth states that the primeval status of the earth was very chaotic. There existed only a dark, watery body known as the Nun. In this body existed the great serpent Apophis/Apep. This was responsible for the destructive forces and chaos. When the creator finally made the first land called Primeval Mound out of the Nun, the creator’s spirit got a place to settle and take shape. He made order out of the chaos that existed. This happened after he had taken the person of a goddess named as Maat, which meant justice, peace or truth. The creator then finally created humans and deities.

Among the deities created included Heka who was in human form. He could be identified with the creator personally in a latter appearance in child form as a symbol of the emergence of new life. This deity was described as the soul of manifestation (ba) of the sun god and thus was the energy that enabled creation and as such, every act of magic was a continuation of the process of creation. It can thus be deduced from the preceding paragraph that heka was a weapon for humanity to prevent evil blows from befalling man. Heka was especially used for dealing with events such as sickness, snakebite, scorpion bite, safety during childbirth, calming threats from a living or dead enemy, demons or evil spirits. He also could be used to induce love.

Magic or Religion: The vanishing line

It is difficult to successfully define what magic meant in the Egyptian context. Their understanding of this magical word leaves more than what we today define magic. Indeed, a close look at their religious practices unveils to us what anyone in the modern religions would not hesitate to call magical in every aspect. This discrepancy is brought about by the fact that modern religions take magic from a conceptual perspective, a phenomenon absent in the Egyptian context hence the conflict of definition. Modern monotheistic religions differ with the early Egyptians in the essence that the latter had no concepts or words like ‘religion’ in their vocabulary as opposed to the former who possess profound meanings and stands on religion and of course, magic.

Ancient Egyptian religion was a complicated system of beliefs that were polytheistic alongside a myriad of rituals that were a common phenomenon with the Egyptian society. It emphasized on interaction with gods believed to be present and in full control of all the elements of the nature. Myths about these deities were focused on explaining their origin and that of the behavior of forces they exhibited. On the other hand, the religious practices provided for the gods and were a means of seeking favor from them. This paper explores six practices of the ancient Egyptians, which today may appear magic, but to them they were as holy as pure religion.

Since deities have been mentioned from the start of this paper and were central in the ancient Egyptian religion, it is only fair if they open this discussion. It is true that ancient Egyptians had no separate term for religion but they had a variety of beliefs and practices with the link between them being their central focus on the interaction between humans and the divine world. The gods of the divine world shaped the Egyptians understanding of the entire world. The Egyptians believed that nature consisted of divine forces, which included abstract forces, elements or far even, animal characteristics.

They believed in a pantheon of gods that involved themselves in virtually every aspect of nature and human society and hence their religious practices were meant to maintain all these phenomena and above all, turn them to their advantage. The Egyptians had as many as 2000 deities, which consisted of both gods and goddesses. Some were worshipped through out the entire Egypt while others had a mere local following. What made theses gods appear more magic then? Is it their numbers? No. The main concern is on their representation.

Often, the deities were represented as part human and par animal. A perfect example is the sky god, Horus. This god had the head of a hawk and the body of a human. Theses dual representations were influenced by the Egyptians’ belief that some animals were holy like the crocodile, the cat and the bull. Other gods were Amon-Ra and Osiris who apparently were the chief gods. The former was the sun god and the lord of the universe while the latter was the god of the underworld.

Just as these gods had different manifestations, they also had multiple mythological purposes. Many natural forces like the sun had multiple deities associated with them. Generally, the diverse pantheon composed of gods ranging from those with vital roles to those with minor ones like the demons. The pantheon could also consist of gods borrowed from foreign cultures and incorporated in the Egyptian religious practices, a process termed as syncretism. Sometimes, deceased pharaohs could also be deified to the position of these gods.

The focus of the ancient Egyptian Religion was its focus on afterlife. Indeed, this was the foundation of virtually all their practices and beliefs. This was because they believed that the soul was perishable and as such at great risk. Every effort was therefore made to ensure that the deceased was laid down in the most appropriate way possible according to their economic status. This explains the many rituals accompanying their burials like the mummification of the body and magic spells meant to preserve the body its perilous journey in the underworld.

On arrival in this second world, the Egyptians believed that the deceased would face their day of judgment in a place called the Hall of the Two Truths. Anubis, the god of the dead would lead the deceased here and have stand before forty-two judges and gods. From this, he was led to a set of scales meant to weigh the deeds of his lifetime against maalat the god of justice. The later 23would decide the fate of the deceased by either sending him to the Devourer of the Dead or be welcomed by Osiris, the god of resurrection to the Everlasting Paradise. Though modern beliefs of afterlife in the monotheistic religions may have overtones of the Egyptians’, it is apparently clear there are more disparities than the comparisons.

One would be unfair, in any context of studying Egyptian magic and religion, to overlook their advancements in the field of medicine. As a recap for emphasis, magic and what we term as religion were two parallel and fundamental aspects of the Egyptian society. Evil gods and demons were believed to be responsible for diseases. This is where the advancements in medicine came in. Treatment to the ailments involved no0t only the practices that are well known in the modern medicine field but an inclusion of a supernatural element. The procedure was thus not prototype of a laboratory manual but a complicated one that involved deities. To open the session, the healer had to first appeal to a deity.

As seen from the above tip on their practice, the Egyptians had what today are priests as their healers. In fact, many of the physicians were priests of Sekhmet. This shows an interlock between religion and magic. The healing process involved incantation. The curative part of it was based on a placebo effect. This implies that the perception of the validity of the cure was not based on the medicine taken but on its effectiveness. This shows a society deeply rooted in its beliefs in magic as part of solution to their problems. The ingredients to make the medicines were not selected by the virtue of their healing capacity. They were selected from a plant or animal which corresponding symptoms with the patient, a principle termed as simila similibus. Once again, magic was at play. Modern civilization in medicine have their roots in early Egyptian practices but only differ in the latter’s magical orientation and above all, their quest to solve the problems of after life as evident in the mummification of the bodies and all the spells accompanying their burial ceremonies.

Another key practice of the Egyptian religion that bordered magic is its cosmological component. The Egyptians conceived the universe as being centered on maat. This is a god, as mentioned earlier in this paper, associated with order, justice and truth. This conception was a fixed eternal order of the universe and in the human society too. Its existence dates back since the creation of the world and they believed that without it, unity would be lost in the world. According to the Egyptian belief, maat was always under threat from other forces of disunity and as such, the community had to maintain it if at all they wished a cohesive life. This had several implications. On the human scene, all members of the society were supposed to cooperate and coexist together harmoniously. On the comic side, all the forces of nature (the gods) would continue to act in balance. In an effort to sustain maat, the Egyptians gave offerings and performed rituals meant to keep disorder at bay. From this context, one may excuse the Egyptians magical way of life since it sought to bring harmony and peace in the society, a phenomenon yearned by every society even the modern religions, which claim not to be magical.

The Egyptian religion could not be complete without its numerous myths. These myths were metaphorical stories that were meant to demonstrate and elaborate the actions of the gods and their roles in nature. Mythical narrations were usually not written and thus their knowledge is a derivation of hymns detailing roles of specific deities, ritual and magical texts describing actions linked to mythic events or from funerary texts that mention the functions of many deities in the after life. For the purposes of exemplification, this paper will dwell more on a significant myth among the Egyptians, the creation myths, since they are also popular in other societies.

Going by these myths, the world emerged as a dry space in an abyss of disorder. Owing to the significance of the sun to life on earth, he first rising of the sun god Ra marked this first emergence. Due to the existence of different versions of these creation myths, the process of creation is described in different ways. Some claim creation as act of the hidden power of god Amun, others term it as a transformation of the god Atum into elements the formed the earth while  others believe it is as a result of the creative speech of Ptah, god of intelligence. Regardless of whatever version one adopts, creation involved the initial establishing of maat and a pattern for the subsequent cycles of time. This shows that the deities could not be excluded from the lives of the Egyptians, as they not only affected their religion but also their events magically. One wonders how such an antique religion could have so much influence to their lives yet it was before the advent of Christianity or Islam, the modern major religions. Was it the magic in it that kept them so much deeply rooted or pure religion? The line between the two was not distinct as seen in the examples further below (Pinch, 1994 p 11).

Early Egyptians are also believed to possess another magical form of religious practice popularly known as the animal cult. Egyptians worshipped individual animals because they termed them as a manifestation of their deities. The animals were chosen based on the specific sacred marks that were believed to be an indication of their fitness for the role. A good example is Apis bull that was worshipped in Memphis to manifest Ptah. As this cult grew with time, temples began to rise stocks of such animals from where they chose which animal to be used as a new manifestation. Later in the 26th dynasty, people began to mummify any member of animal species. This was meant to function as an offering to be offered to the god that was represented by the species. As a result, millions of birds, cats and a horde of other creatures were buried in temples in an effort to honor the Egyptian deities. This can be equaled to any modern form of magic that believes in any divine quality in inferior creatures like pets and birds (Wallis, 2010 pp.1-20).

The last religious practice to be discussed in this paper is the Egyptians strong belief in after life. Though modern religions still believe in life after death, the elaborate beliefs about death and the afterlife adopted by these fathers of ancient civilization were simply magical. They believed that humans had a life-force (ka) that left the body at one’s point of death. In normal health, the ka was sustained from food and drink and as such to endure after death, this life-force had to continue receiving food which it consumed by its mere spiritual presence.

Egyptians also believed that every individual had a set of spiritual characteristics (ba) peculiar to that person. As contrasted to the ka the ba was left attached to the body after one died. This explained why the Egyptians had such complicated rituals during their funerals, which were meant to release the ba from the body of the deceased and rejoin with ka to live together as an akh. On top of this, they believed that the ba returned to the body it belonged to every nigh and therefore there was a great need to reserve the body. This explains why mummification was such a basic phenomenon in the religious practices of the ancient Egyptians. As to whether this is practice was really true or a cult, the answer lies with what a cult meant to them those days and true religion(Pinch,1994 pp121-143).

In conclusion, it is evident magic occupied every aspect of the religion of the ancient Egyptians if the above examples and the modern description of magic are anything to go by. The polytheistic approach adopted by the Egyptians was influenced by their understanding of nature in their times. According to them, things did not happen for the sake of it nor were they controlled by an invisible being to be revered, as the modern monotheistic religions believe but   rather were a consequence of a system of a pantheons of gods who were vested with different responsibilities to ensure a harmonious life in the unborn, the living and the afterlife world.

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